October 1, 2022, marks the 22 years of formation of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). It has seen glorious past and its future is heavily dependent on its 4G. Though it was the first to launch 3G, it is the last to launch 4G. Government and BSNL are pinning their hopes on the success of 4G. BSNL is going to install one lakh 4G sites. In the recently announced revival package, government has allotted Rs 67,464 crores (Rs 44,993 crores for spectrum+ Rs 22,471 crores for 4G capex) for this chosen focused area. The first tranche of Rs 5,000 crore of revival package has been released by the government recently. This article analyses various issues connected with the success of BSNL’s 4G.
1. Indigenous technology
Difference between 3G and 4G
4G networks are based on a pure data connection over an end to end IP connection. All the traffic, including voice, is transported in data packets on 4G networks, unlike 3G. In the 3G network, voice is transmitted on circuit switched core to PSTN and data is transmitted on packet switched core to the IP network. There is no circuit switching in 4G.
BSNL had issued a tender for planning, testing, deployment and maintenance of the 4G network. The consortium of TCS (for Software support and System Integration), CDOT (for Core technology) and Tejas (for Radio network) was selected by BSNL for implementing BSNL’s 4G project. TCS is the lead partner. The POC (Proof of Concept) was successfully conducted by the consortium in BSNLs Ambala and Chandigarh networks.
First call on the network
The first IP video call on this network was made on October 11, 2021, by the Telecom Secretary. The call was received by the Minister of Communications. Data browsing and video streaming was also demonstrated.
CDOT 4G core
CDOT has built the indigenous 4G core using commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware, without any proprietary lock-ins. Its 4G core is virtualized and it is futuristic cloud based software implementation to achieve:
• Ease of deployment
• Ease of scalability
• Low footprint and low power consumption
• Reduction of OPEX, low cost for the future updates and upgrades
• Long term support to BSNL
Features of CDOT 4G core:
• Simplified network topology
• Supports 3GPP defined interfaces
• Centralised policy and charging
• 4G Evolved Packet Core (EPC) Network providing mobile VOLTE/ VOIP /data service through seamless integration with IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) and legacy mobile services through interworking with 2G/ 3G networks
• IMS for access independent and service independent delivery with provision for services/ features portfolio expansion using 3rd party plugin servers.
• Flexible data centre switch fabric
• Element Management System
• Security implementation through embedded Firewall, Security Gateway and CGNAT (Carrier Grade Network Address Translation)
• Support for NB IOT and M2M
• Separation of Control and User Plane
The core equipment consists of:
• Mobility Management Entity (MME)
• Serving Gateway (SGW)
• Packet Data Network Gateway (P- GW)
• Policy and Charging Rule Function (PCRF)
• Home Subscriber Server (HSS)
• Trusted/untrusted Wi-Fi Offload Gateways
The access network is a Software Defined Radio (SDR) implementation which is expandable to new frequency bands and upgradable with new features through software only upgrades.
Tejas will supply e Node Bs as per TEC specifications and every transmit port will deliver 40 W RF power per antenna input port for FDD (Frequency Division Duplexing) and TDD (Time Division Duplexing).
2. Strengthening of backhaul for 4G
BSNL should complete the fiberization of towers before the 4G service is launched so that customers can get full advantage of 4G. Recently BSNL has initiated the process to sell 17,000 towers to tower companies. They are located at important locations and 70 per cent of these towers are fiberised. BSNL should lease-in the towers wherever required from these tower companies.
3. 4G service in uncovered villages
BSNL will provide 4G service in 24,680 uncovered villages. In the recently announced BSNL revival package, the government has earmarked Rs 23,616 crores for this activity and USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund) will meet this expenditure. BSNL has floated the tender inviting bids for the erection of GBTs (Ground Based Towers) at these villages.
4. Upgradation of 2G BTS to 4G in LWE (Left Wing Extremist) areas
The Union Cabinet approved a Rs 1885 crore project to upgrade 2343 numbers of BSNL 2G sites of Phase 1 to 4G in LWE areas, spread across ten states, utilising USOF. This upgrade will help the security personnel there to get a high speed internet facility. This project includes O&M for 5 years. After 5 years, BSNL will maintain them at its own cost.
5. Marketing for 4G
• The USP for BSNL 4G service is it is based on indigenous technology, following the principles enshrined in ‘ Atmanirbharatha’ doctrine. In the world there are only four other countries where indigenous 4G is deployed. BSNL should prepare advertisements highlighting this unique feature of its 4G. These advertisements should raise national fervour so that all the customers supporting ‘ swadesi’ will subscribe to BSNL 4G. BSNL should rope in the organisations supporting Indian products/services for promoting its 4G.
• Savings of FOREX because of deployment of indigenous equipment is also a point in favour of BSNL.
• With respect to the National Security angle, BSNL 4G is better placed and BSNL advertisements can highlight this aspect.
• As BSNL 4G is based on indigenous technology and Indian equipment, availability of critical spares at crucial times is not at all an issue whereas the same may be a challenge for other TSPs. This advantage can be focused on BSNL advertisements.
6. Customer acquisition
Customer acquisition for 4G service will be crucial for BSNL which will be monitored by DOT. Apart from migrating existing 2G/3G customers to 4G, it should focus on MNP and ‘Ghar wapsi’ of its erstwhile customers, who left BSNL earlier as it was not providing 4G service.
While providing new connections, it should tie up with 4G mobile phone vendors and offer combo packages.
BSNL should ensure that an adequate number of 4G SIMs are available in its outlets and with their channel partners. It has already finalised SIM procurement. It is the personal experience of the author that adequate stock of SIMs with BSNL outlets and channel partners outlets is very much essential for the fast customer acquisitions. It should keep enough stock of 4G phones with ESIM (Embedded SIM).
BSNL should carry out MNP at the customer door steps after receiving requests from them on phone.
BSNL should take up with TRAI for introducing OTP based MNP so that 4G customers of other operators can migrate to BSNL without physically going to TSPs outlets. BSNL can arrange 4G SIMs at the customer’s door steps itself.
7. BSNL 4G subscription by Central government departments and armed forces
When Air India was a PSU, there was a stipulation by the government of India that central government servants for their official trips and also for LTC trips should travel by Air India only. BSNL should request the government to issue such instructions to central government departments to subscribe only to BSNL 4G. In the data security angle also it may be required that central government departments should prefer BSNL 4G service as it is based on indigenous technology. Armed forces should take their official as well as personal 4G connections from BSNL only keeping national security in mind.
8. Compensation to BSNL for the delay in launching of 4G
The scope of USOF should be expanded and this fund should also support development of indigenous technology. The financial loss incurred by BSNL because of the delay in launching of 4G service as it has been mandated to use only indigenous technology and the development of it took some time, should be assessed by the government and should be compensated through the USOF.
The entire world is keenly awaiting BSNL 4G. The ‘Atmanirbharatha’ drive will get a big boost and will become a passion if BSNL 4G is a success story. BSNL is the first PSU in India to embrace ‘ Atmanirbharatha’. Hope the consortium and BSNL will put all out efforts to raise to the occasion to launch 4G service quickly and with the features and QOS on par with that of other TSPs. BSNL will be the last TSP to launch 4G and there will be a gap of about six years between first operator and BSNL in launching 4G service. The service of other operators is stabilised and matured in this time and customers are also accustomed with 4G service of other operators. To wean away the customers from them will be a real challenge to BSNL. Getting customers in uncovered villages will not be an issue when BSNL will launch 4G service there. But BSNL should necessarily supply 4G phones also with the connections in these areas.
2G mobile services started in our country in July 95. With a delay of seven years BSNL entered the 2G market in 2002. By that time the two operators were well entrenched. But within a short time, BSNL could cover the lost ground and win the hearts of the customers with free incoming facility, attractive tariff packages, removal of roaming charges for the incoming calls, transparency in billing and good coverage, especially in rural areas. It became the dominant operator and gave the private TSPs a run for their money. Hope history will repeat for BSNL in the case of 4G also!
The window of opportunity available for BSNL to get revenue from its 4G is till the private TSPs go full hog on their 5G SA (Stand Alone) service. BSNL should fully utilise this limited time.
(The author is a former Advisor, Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India)